Escape from Victimhood: Fostering Accountability in Conflict

In conflict, we feel victimized. This is natural and normal. In most cases, the discomfort associated with this feeling motivates us to act. Some people, however, feed on the attention they receive (usually in the form of sympathy) and on the righteousness of being “innocent” and “right”. These payoffs can be very seductive and underlie the greatest challenge facing anyone working with conflict: how to support people to abandon the comfort zone of the victim and actively work to become part of the solution. This question is fundamental to all “helping professions”, including counseling and coaching.

I recently participated in a webinar hosted by Don Phin, based on his book Victims, Villains and Heroes: Managing Emotions in the Workplace. Don tackled this question in the context of leadership. He stated that leaders need to coax, encourage and inspire to empower those in victim mode.

We can encourage, by acknowledging people – to “find the good” in them. We inspire by sharing success stories with which people can identify. We can coax them to take small steps to begin to move forward. Phin uses the phrase “try this and see how it feels” to encourage people to act without overwhelming them with commitment. Another author on this topic, David Emerald (The Power of TED: The Empowerment Dynamic), uses the concept of “baby steps”. I have found this latter concept invaluable in helping me overcome procrastination – one of the many forms of victimhood.

With respect to conflict resolution, I would add empathy to the mix. In my experience, people will not let go of their victim stories until they feel their pain has been heard and acknowledged. I recall one of my early mediation trainers reminding us that “to go for a ride with someone, we must first pick them up where they live”. Until people feel heard at an emotional level, they tend to resist efforts to move them forward – however sound and well-intentioned such advice may be. When we are able to move a conversation to an emotional level, we are also one step closer to identifying the unmet needs that underlie their feelings of being a victim. This also allows us to reframe their situation in terms of what they do need – to at least offer them a glimpse of the preferred future in place of their focus on the unwanted past.
While nothing can force someone to abandon their role as a powerless and blameless victim, curiosity and empathy will build a solid foundation to encourage, inspire and coax them to become their own hero.

About Gary Harper, The Joy of Conflict Resolution

Gary Harper is the principal of Harper and Associates. He is a trainer, writer and facilitator who specializes in conflict resolution. Through his unique blend of experience as a personal injury lawyer, general manager, insurance regulator and retail store owner, he learned the value of clear communication and conflict resolution skills. Since 1991 he has trained and mediated in a wide variety of organizations - from health care to the film industry to many levels of government. He is a member of the instructional team of the Centre for Conflict Resolution at the Justice Institute of B. C. and recently authored The Joy of Conflict Resolution: Transforming Victims, Villains and Heroes in the Workplace and at Home.
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